(3) ministry, “(every day is) halloween”
(1) siouxsie & the banshees, “cities in dust”
and play in the final four
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 26.
this is my body: dave griffith on “(every day is) halloween”
Well I let their teeny minds think
That they're dealing with someone who is over the brink
And I dress this way just to keep them at bay
'Cause Halloween is everyday
My daughter is one month shy of turning thirteen and is presently upstairs getting dressed for her first middle school dance. I have no idea what she intends to wear. I have not been consulted. My role is purely to chauffeur.
The first thing I see as she comes down the darkened stairway are the toes of her black boots. The light at the bottom of the stairs is off, so for a moment she is a shadow standing in the hallway. “I’m ready,” she says, and crosses the threshold into the light of the living room, where now it’s clear that it’s not just her boots that are black, but her dress, and her tights, and, to top it all off, a large black bow on top of her head. Her face, too, which is usually round and sweet and freckly, has taken on an ethereal darkness due to some subtle kohl shading around her eyes and a ruddy, dusty red lipstick. “Wow, you look amazing!” I say, but she does not want to hear it. “Come on, Dad, I’m going to be late.” “At least let me take a picture real quick.” She lets out a big sigh, her shoulders actually rise up above her ears and then fall again. “Ok, fine, but hurry.” “Smile!” I say, but she won’t. She just tilts her head to the side and narrows her gaze on me, brow furrowing beneath her red bangs. “Dad,” she whines, sing-songy, “I’m trying to be Goth.”
This is rural Indiana in early November, the week after Halloween, so when we get in the car it is already very dark and cold. There is a small sliver of moon low in the sky. I point it out to her as I have always done: “look at the moon,” I say and gesture with my head out her window. “It’s a finger nail pairing,” she says, then we have a brief debate about whether the moon is waxing or waning—I can never remember which is which.
As we drive further into the country, it is now so dark that I can see a worrisome number of stars. I see the Big Dipper splayed low in the sky. I know that Sagittarius, the sign we both share, is somewhere up there, but I keep my eyes on the road, watching for deer that sometimes bound across, running from distant wind break to distant wind break. I want to make small talk about what she thinks it means to be Goth. I want to pull up on my phone some Sioxusie and the Banshees, or Bauhaus, which I think she will find delightfully strange, but I don’t want to influence her at this moment. I want this moment to be hers. And so we drive on in silence, her face glowing in the light from the radio display.
I’m 43, and though I grew up listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, The Cult, and Ministry, I’ve never dyed my hair or even worn it past my collar. I’ve never pierced anything or had anything tattooed. I’ve never owned black jeans. Beyond a two-year period after grad school when I played in a band that liked to smoke weed before every rehearsal and gig, I’ve never had much of an appetite for drugs. I did do cocaine once, but all that happened was I talked a lot (and very fast) about Flannery O’Connor until everyone walked away. And now that I’m thinking about it I did try acid once at a New Year’s Eve party, but I experienced no hallucinations only a deep sense of dread and emptiness that led me to sob uncontrollably for several hours until the sun came up. And, ok, I did try ecstasy, but all that happened there was I sat in a hotel bar and sketched out a proof with accompanying diagrams for the existence of the Matrix on a series of small beverage napkins.
I tell you all this now because lately I’m feeling deeply anxious. My daughter is having a hard time at school, and in order to get some perspective, some kind of frame of reference for what she’s going through, she’s been asking me a lot of questions about my experiences as a teenager. About drugs and relationships, mostly, but also about God and her grandmother, my mom, who died seven years ago this past month. She’s trying to reconcile it all. Trying to understand why life is so hard. Why she can’t just stay home and draw and read and listen to music, and be spared the moronic girls who only care about being popular and the bone-headed bros who make fun of her for saying that she’s a feminist.
Like all parents, I want to save her, find a way for her to be spared any and all pain and suffering. But I know that this is impossible, and I know that some of what she’s going through is necessary, a process in which she will try on different identities in search of something that feels authentic and comfortable for her. There’s so much I want to tell her, so much I’m not sure she’s ready to hear, and so much I’m not sure I’m ready to tell her.
She’s a brilliant and fearless kid. She identifies strongly with Hobbits, especially when it comes to eating. Loves the Beatles (Ringo is her favorite, and is the name of her black kitten), fan-girls over Hamilton, and devours graphic novels--lately she’s been alternating back and forth between re-reading Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints and John Lewis’ March.
She’s working on a couple of her own graphic novel projects, one about the Founding Fathers in which they are cast as irritable and unpredictable teenagers, and one that she describes as a Steampunk teen dramedy. She plays clarinet with a tone and sensitivity beyond her years, and would like to learn to play guitar. In these, and many other ways, she’s a typical kid.
The thing that sets her apart is that at age seven she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological condition that,, among other things, makes it hard for her to socially gel with kids her own age. It’s marked by obsessions, both with collecting things and with intellectual preoccupations, as well as a hypersensitivity to justice and fairness. Currently, thanks to Hamilton, she is obsessed with the drafting of the Constitution, but before that it was Sir Isaac Newton and his fierce rivalry with Robert Hooke. But her most enduring obsession, the thing that I hope she never loses, is a belief in the supernatural. This kid loves Halloween. This year she Wirt from Over the Garden Wall, the year before that George Harrison in full Sgt. Pepper’s regalia, before that Marie Antoinette, the before that Joan of Arc, and the year before that Amelia Earhart. (All of them her choice.)
Making friends is hard for her, but not because she chooses costumes that her peers don’t get, but that she inhabits these personas in great depth and detail, and will talk about them, like a historical re-enactor, with anyone who will listen, and she gets very irritated (to put it mildly) when those she’s talking to do not share her enthusiasm.
As we get closer to the school, I remind her that she can call me whenever she’s ready to go. “I know, I know…” she says. “I’ll be fine.” As the lights of the school come into view, she pulls down the passenger side visor and flips open the mirror to check her make-up and hair. “You look great,” I say. “Yeah, you kind of have to say that, Dad.”
I pull up near the main entrance of the school, though not too near. She leans over and kisses my cheek. “Love you, Dad.”
What is anxiety-inducing, is not so much her intensity, but that I’m starting to see myself in her, starting to reflect on my own obsessions, my own, old feelings of alienation and darkness. At her age, I would not have been able to walk into a dance on my own, like she just did. I needed the safety and anonymity of a pack. And though I had plenty of friends, I had my share of obsessions—I just didn’t tell anyone about them, and as a result I “passed”—I appeared like your normal, standard-issue, Midwestern white boy.
As I pull away, I pass the gym doors and can’t help but stop the car for a moment and peer in. Through the glass I can see dozens of dark silhouettes flailing in whorls of stroboscopic blue and orange before an altar of speakers and lights.
Confession: When I was thirteen I was obsessed with the body and blood of Jesus. I had just had my first communion. Thirteen is late to be celebrating first communion--usually it’s like seven or eight years old, but my parents, neither of them cradle Catholics, didn’t abide by all those prescribed timelines. And though I was older than all the other kids, I was scared: What would it taste like? What if I forget how to hold my hands?—right cupped under left, like begging for alms. What if I dropped the host on the floor? But within a few weeks the fear faded, and communion became something I looked forward to because 1.) I actually kind of liked the taste—an odd combination of stale bread and tinny wine and 2.) I was told that it would bring me eternal life.
There was a third thing, something that I never told anyone, because who would I tell?: I was obsessed with transubstantiation, that mystical process that theologians have argued over for hundreds of years, by which the bread and the wine are transformed—they did not elaborate on how exactly in my CCD classes—through the power of the Holy Spirit into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. This dark, death cult dimension of my faith thrilled me.
I began to so anticipate receiving the body and blood that on Sunday mornings, as Father John pressed the thin disc of bread into my palm, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck and all along my arms. The feeling was so dizzying that by the time I was being handed the chalice of wine I was unable to focus, unable to maintain the kind of consciousness I wanted so that I could really be aware as the wine, now blood, passed my lips. I wanted to capture that precise moment of exchange; to be present at my weekly salvation.
As I walked slowly back to my seat in the pews, I became ponderous. I kept my head bowed and reverently allowed the bread-made-flesh to dissolve on my tongue. Kneeling in the pew, waiting for the other parishioners to file to the front, I held two thoughts simultaneously in my head: Thank you, Jesus, and then, Jesus, what did I just do?
Methodists didn’t drink the blood of Jesus, they drink grape juice. I learned this when I joined the choir at Grace United Methodist Church. My best friend and neighbor, Chip, invited me to join. Chip was seventeen, and the coolest person I knew. He was a skater, published a skate and music zine that he made using the photocopier in the breakroom of the K-Mart his dad managed, and ran a fake radio station, WPIG, out of his basement.
By “fake radio station” I mean that no signal was being broadcast into the atmosphere; he would just make mixtapes in the format of a radio show, with lots of banter and guest appearances by other neighborhood kids. Somehow I convinced him to allow me to be part of his DJ crew, and so we would take turns selecting songs and introducing them into a plastic Radioshack brand mic.
Listening to the tapes now, I cringe hearing my high pubescent voice announcing songs whose messages and meanings were way beyond my years of experience, like The Cult’s “Black Angel” or Janes Addiction’s “Whores.” Just hearing my small voice enunciate the words “Angel” and “Whores” triggers a wave of panic, especially now that I have a teenage daughter. But listening to the tapes I am also remembering how formative making those tapes was for me--how agonizing over the playlists and obsessively recording and re-recording intros to the songs so that my voice sounded just right, was my way of avoiding becoming what I feared most: being like everyone else.
I think this why I joined the Grace United Methodist choir. Our Lady of Lourdes, apart from not having a choir, youth or otherwise, had the most awful music: a guitar-playing husband and wife duo that stood to the right of the altar and led us, like a Catholic Sonny and Cher, in the post-Vatican II hits like “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness,” (whose time signature and melody bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”). It was not nearly dark and plaintive enough for me. If I was going to be Catholic, I wanted Latin. I wanted the Stabat Mater, to weep with Mary at the foot of the cross. I wanted a soft and humble kyrie eleison. I wanted the Lord to have mercy on my soul. And if I couldn’t have that then I would simply get my body and blood from the Methodists, who at least, from the way Chip described it, had fun. There were pizza parties and cute girls, and something called Choir Tour, which by the way Chip described it, was my ticket to getting a girlfriend.
The Grace choir repertoire contained exactly zero Latin, though we did sing a catchy song about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo, the Hebrew men whose faith protected them from being consumed in a fiery furnace, which I liked to sing because while singing I imagined the opening hook from the Beastie Boy’s “Shadrach” playing in the background:
Riddle me this, brother can you handle it
Your style to my style, you can't hold a candle to it
Equinox symmetry and the balance is right
Smokin' and drinkin' on a Tuesday night
Eventually, I started attending Grace Methodist choir rehearsals, where I sat in the last row against the yellow painted cinder block wall with Chip and all the older boys. But rehearsal was not what I expected. It was mostly an excuse for Chip and his friends to flirt with the girls in the row ahead of us and alter the words of the hymns in explicit ways. During a song about Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who later helps Joseph of Arimethea prepare Jesus’ broken body for burial, instead of singing the refrain “Nico-DEE-mus, Nico-DEE-mus,” the boys in the back row would sing in a faux-operatic way “Lick-my-PEE-nis, Lick-my-PEE-nis.”
“Sacrilegious” is the word that comes to mind now, literally “the stealer of sacred things”—the removal of the sacred and insertion of the profane. My mom, not a Catholic but a Seventh Day Adventist, had taught it to me. She wasn’t a stickler when it came to matters of doctrine. She didn’t think church-going was compulsory; she didn’t think you had to confess your sins, or tithe 1/10th of your income, or volunteer at festivals held on the parish school playground blacktop, because she had a personal relationship with Jesus. He walks with me and talks with me, she would say.
Despite her anti-clerical views, she did not have a sense of humor when it came to making light of God, Jesus, or any other biblical personages. Though never stern about this, she made it clear that to make light of sacred things was indecent and disrespectful. “I don’t like that,” she would say, flatly, as though it made her physically uncomfortable.
This kind of two-mindedness dominated my thinking. Holding the sacred and the profane next to one another in the mind--the would-be martyrs proclaiming their love for God as they approached the furnace vs. the Beastie Boys’ funky dance party track; Nicodemus undergoing a conversion of faith vs. blowjobs—introduced me to irony in a way that no text book definition ever could.
But the ultimate lesson in irony came during the first communion service I attended at Grace. I knew that Methodists only receive communion once a month during a special service. This seemed sensible to me. Doing a thing less often made it more special, didn’t it? I was doing everything I could to rationalize skipping mass, but still I felt a twinge of guilt, like I was cheating on the Catholic Church. But on this special communion Sunday, I was free of that guilt, and I felt even freer as the service began, because it was, to my surprise, liturgically, in terms of the order of the ritual, and the actual words spoken, nearly identical what I heard every Sunday at Lourdes:
On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: "Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
And then the same with the cup filled with wine: “…take, drink; this is my blood…” I sat there in the choir loft watching the pastor lift up and present the bread to the congregation, and then the same with the cup of wine, and I felt the same thick anticipation I felt at Lourdes, the words “this is my body…this is my blood” triggering a sense of gratefulness and unworthiness in me, but then, just as suddenly as it had come, the feeling went out of me. At the end of the my row, a tray appeared filled with little clear medicine cups each containing a knuckle of bread, followed by the same clear cups filled with purple juice. It felt like snack time or the dispensation of meds on the ward. The bread was thick and chewy, the juice so sugary that it left the roof of my mouth slick. I sat there feeling vacant, rolling my tongue around the inside of my mouth.
Years later, as a freshman in college, I would be required to take a theology course at 8:15 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In that course, during which I consumed heroic amounts of coffee to stay awake, I studied the theology of the Eucharist. I don’t remember much, but what I do remember was that transubstantiation is like no other process known to Man. It is a supernatural event in which one thing (bread) is converted into another (flesh), not in its appearance but in its substance. It still appears to be bread and wine, but the bread-ness and wine-ness depart and Jesus’s substance, his flesh and blood, take its place. The eminent British literary theorist Terry Eagleton has written an entire essay on this matter. In “Irony and the Eucharist” he claims that the bread and wine are not just signs but meta-signs, which signal “an absence of signification, rather as zero is.” But, he continues, they are “not only signs about signs, but signs of the ‘beyond-sign’,” and thus “…signify the future death of signification.”
In other words, the bread and wine are Heaven. Not something like Heaven, but the thing itself. Eagleton concludes that Heaven is a place where the “body itself becomes our most eloquently expressive form of discourse. The ‘risen’ body is one with all the inexhaustible resources and fathomless creativity of language, the body as Word.”
I knew none of this theological and semiological business that sunny Sunday morning in 1989 sitting in the choir loft of Grace United Methodist, though I don’t know if it would have made a difference. The bread and wine tasted different, felt different, in my mouth, because they were different, in kind. If I were truly a person of conviction, I would also have to say that what I was experiencing was the lack of Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine. What I was experiencing was merely symbolic, a gesture toward the real thing, not the thing itself.
During those several months moonlighting as a Methodist and playing fake radio station in Chip’s basement, little by little, week by week, something in me was becoming alert to a general flimsiness, a lack of substance in my life. I was hungry for something that pushed past all the limits of what I knew, of what felt comfortable; something that went beyond the easy, irony of the Beastie Boys, white rappers ripping off Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and other black musicians to shape their sound, and the Methodist bro’s Nicodemus.
I knew that it existed. I had heard and seen it late at night on MTV in the darkened downstairs living room on a show called 120 Minutes that played two straight hours of post-punk, new wave, and industrial music, like The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Love and Rockets, New Order, REM, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode. And yet even much of that music, which everyone was now calling alternative, failed to move me: The Smiths were too maudlin; Michael Stipe’s voice had begun to sound whiny, and The Cure just made me feel lethargic and sad.
Then, one night, as I sat bathed in the silvery lunar light of the TV, I heard Ministry’s “Stigmata,” the first track off of their new album The Land of Rape and Honey. It’s a frantic, nightmarish anthem about a relationship that ends because of lies and deception.
Stronger than reason
Stronger than lies
The only truth I know
Is the look in your eyes
The look in your eyes!
The lyrics, delivered by Jourgensen in a guttural, menacing, reptilian shout, are almost completely drowned out by the grinding synth guitars. But if you listen closely you can piece together something about his lovers’ eyes, eyes that ultimately are empty and hollowed-out, an oblique reference it would seem to incidents of stigmata where the person bleeds from the eyes instead of the hands and feet.
It was as though drafty secret passage had suddenly opened behind the livingroom bookcase revealing a long, vertiginous stairway down into the darkness, stairs from which I could safely take in a view of the void while still keeping the light at the entrance in sight.
The video begins with a man kneeling at the foot of a cross from an old storefront church, an electrified cross made up of those round bulbs from a green room mirror. Though some are burnt out, my mind completes the image, and sees this imperfect cross. Then the man is running down a dark urban street, chased by someone on a motorcycle. In between these chase scenes is stock footage of earth moving equipment, churning machinery, a professor working on a complicated equation on a chalk board—all the tell-tale signs of goth and Industrial music and its pre-occupation with the Italian Futurists nearly a century before; a preoccupation with force and inertia, with bodies in motion and their lust to stay in motion, and, of course, a preoccupation with grinding, mechanistic, disembodied noises that make our nerves jangle; that make us more aware of our bodies. Then this man again writhing on the ground. He is laying in a pile of rubble. Then we’re at a Ministry show in a dark, underground club. Silhouetted bodies thrash to the pummeling bass. Then we cut back to the writhing man. He has a tattoo of a black, daggery cross on his upper arm. He is howling and running his nails down a brick wall, and, then as the song ends, still laying in the pile of rubble, a skinny robotic arm reaches out to choke him.
As laughable and cliché as it seems now in the cool, po-mo, LED light of the 21st century, this song and video tapped into the viscera of what I was feeling. Here the sacred and the profane weren’t playing grab ass; here was an unapologetic—no nudge, nudge, wink, wink—clash of the holy and the unholy that sonically recreated what I was feeling in my soul.
Which is where I find myself once again, thirty years later. While waiting for my daughter to call, I lie on the couch staring at my phone nostalgically browsing YouTube for Ministry music videos. Though now my search is a vicarious one, it feels just as urgent. I can see that my daughter searching for that path, and I feel that maybe I can, somehow, through the right words of encouragement, or introducing her to the right album at the right time, spare her years of wandering.
And while I know that I can’t do this work for her, I can at least share my search with her, which has led me on this night to a Ministry track that I have never heard before: “(Every Day Is) Halloween.”
This is early, obscure, Ministry—no relentlessly pounding bass, chainsaw guitars or distorted screaming. We’re talking a synth-pop track on the B-side of a 1984 single.
Lyrically, it’s your typical teen angst anthem:
Well I live with snakes and lizards
And other things that go bump in the night
'Cause to me everyday is Halloween
I have given up hiding and started to fight
I have started to fight
Well any time, any place, anywhere that I go
All the people seem to stop and stare
They say "why are you dressed like it's Halloween?
You look so absurd, you look so obscene”
Musically, it sounds like your run-of-the-mill, 80s synth-pop song. At first listen the bass line bears an uncanny resemblance to Banarama’s 1988 hit “Venus.” There’s none of the crunching, distorted guitars, none of the menacing, reptilian yelling. It’s nothing like the later anarchic and anguished Ministry with samples of preachers yelling “Praise Jesus!” or George H.W. Bush calling for a “New world order.” But, according to Encyclopedia Gothica, it’s become the Goth anthem, right up there with Bauhaus’ “Bella Lugosi’s Dead.”
And so it’s not the music that grabs me, it’s the YouTube fan video (no official music video was ever made). It begins with clips from an old black and white cartoon set in what appears to be Hell. There’s the Devil, a spider swinging on a thread over a black pit, a tiny demon jazz band, bats, of course, and even three-headed Cerberus, but then, all of sudden, spliced in with the Devil and his minions, skeletons dancing in a grave yard, which I recognized immediately as a clip from a 1929 Disney cartoon “The Skeleton Dance.” For years “The Skeleton Dance” has been a Halloween tradition for us. It’s five and a half minutes of skeletons rise from their graves and performing a choreographed number to a vaguely Slavic sounding xylophone ditty. I don’t remember exactly when we started this ritual, but my daughter was maybe seven or eight. We would watch it on YouTube and she would jump around the house arms akimbo like the skeletons, playing air xylophone on the ribs of an invisible skeleton before her.
Ultimately, the video cinches the way I think of “(Every Day Is) Halloween”: on the one hand it’s a kitschy relic of the late 80s and early 90s when droves of teens powdered theirs faces, dyed their hair inky black, and squeezed into leather pants, but on the other hand, for someone in their early teens trying to find the strength to break the gravitational pull of all the bullshit and drama that comes with fitting in, or not, it is without a doubt an empowering anthem.
Oh, why can't I live a life for me?
Why should I take the abuse that's served?
Why can't they see they're just like me?
She emerges from the school alone and walks slowly toward the car with her head down. “What took you so long?” she asks, putting on her seat belt. Her face is red and sweaty. Her lipstick has been rubbed off.
I explain that I left right when she called. “How was it?” “Fine, except I didn’t win anything. It’s not fair.” There were prizes for best karaoke performance, but you had to compete as a team, and she couldn’t convince anyone to be on her team. And there were other games, too, but those were all won by the really athletic kids. And her crush went to the dance with someone else, and she’s just awful and fake and a cheerleader.
As we pull out of the parking lot and onto the dark county road we pass a subdivision of new homes that all look more or less the same. The trees in the large front yards are still barely saplings. “That’s where they all live,” she says. “Who?” I ask. “All the popular kids. They’re such jerks.”
It’s at moments like this that I struggle to be her father. I want to just to say, here, listen to this, and hand her my phone with “(Every Day Is) Halloween” already cued up, but I feel like it’s my job to point out the stereotype, warn her away from the generalization, help convince her that where a person lives has no bearing on their character, and that there is no conspiracy to defraud her of prizes at the middle school dance.
And yet, on this night, I am tired of keeping up this even-handed parental front. I know that she is bullied at school; I know that most days the beauty and genius of her mind goes unappreciated; that her attempts to make friends are misunderstood, and so I say to her, “You have a gift that they don’t have. You can see and feel things they can’t. And you should kind of feel sorry for them. They’re going to live their entire lives and never understand and never know what you do.”
This might be the worst possible thing I could have said. I might have just given her even more license to increase her already considerable intellectual arrogance, but you know, at this moment it seems better than the alternative, which is for her to go around believing that she in somehow not enough; that she needs to go the extra mile to make others feel comfortable, but dammit if this song isn’t true:
Oh, why can't I live a life for me?
Why should I take the abuse that's served?
Why can't they see they're just like me
It's the same, it's the same in the whole wide world
Back at the house she pounds, black boots still on, up the stairs and changes into pink, silky pajamas. She wants to snuggle on the couch and watch a movie, but her brother, eight years old and about as typical an eight year old boy as you can be, won’t cooperate—he’s watching YouTube videos of bros pranking one another. “You’re such a jerk, you know that?” “What did I do?” he yells back.
I re-direct her. “Come on,” I say, “let’s let him do his thing. We can watch something upstairs.” Upstairs, we sit on her bed and I pull out my phone and search Google for the “Skeleton Dance.” As soon as she hears the plucky xylophone, she brightens up, and as the skeleton emerge from their graves she is up on her feet and dancing. As she mimics the loose jointed skeletons, I am aware now more than ever of how she has changed/is changing. I remember when I could hold her in the crook of my arm, and now look at her: her arms and legs are impossibly long, her face is losing the baby fat, her feet are big, her steps are loud and sure.
I’m 43, and though I grew up listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, The Cult, and Ministry, I’ve never dyed my hair or even worn it past my collar. I’ve never pierced anything or had anything tattooed. I’ve never owned black jeans, and I’m just now realizing what a coward and a liar I’ve been all these years, pretending that I could keep the darkness at bay by just writing about it in a touristy way.
What I’ve neglected to be honest about, is that the darkness of the world is close at hand at all times. And until now, until my daughter, afraid, and yet braver than I’ll ever be, walked into that dance alone, I wasn’t able to see goth for what it is: a way of confronting the darkness by insinuating yourself into it and then dismantling it from the inside.
For most, Halloween is the one day out of the entire year when you indulge the darkness, this alterity you feel, we all feel, in a safe way, in a way that doesn’t make you seem weird or troubled or damaged. But to be goth is to say on a daily basis I’m not afraid to be seen for what I am and what I feel.
I don’t claim to have the answers. I just know that I wish I had been able to admit that darkness into my own life, be on speaking terms with it when I was her age, instead of allowing it to eat away at me all these years.
And yet, it’s not as easy as saying, just live every day as though it were Halloween. That’s a simile. What Ministry intends is metaphor. Every day is Halloween. Every day the darkness is close at hand. How will you ensure that it doesn’t take you down?
As she continues to laugh and stomp all jangly-armed around the room, I notice that she hasn’t quite removed all the dark make-up from around her eyes, and so now I’m imagining her at the dance, twirling and shimmying, eyes closed, black bow bouncing atop her head, in the blue and orange lights, all by herself. For a split second, despite the meanness and narrowness of the other kids pressing all around her in that dark gym, I feel a twinge of the joy and relief she feels moving her body.
I rise up from the bed and begin to dance with her.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Utne Reader, The Normal School, Image, and Creative Nonfiction, and on-line at Killing the Buddha, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Paris Review.
DANIELLE CADENA DEULEN AND J. MAX STINSON ON “CITIES IN DUST”
It had been almost a year since I was last hospitalized when Kristin began making overtures. It might have been sooner, but I have always been frustratingly obtuse regarding signals from women. My natural gift for uncomprehending feminine attentions was certainly made worse by the torch I held for a girl I met in the hospital. Oh, Hospital Girl. I white-knuckle gripped that torch. Beyond the clear romance of meeting in a psychiatric ward and sharing some childhood trauma, Hospital Girl was a brunette, dark-eyed punk. Hardcore punk. Where I meekly suffered the aftereffects of my damage, she donned it like rusty spiked armor and threw her weaponized self at the world. In the radiance of her glorious self-destruction, all other girls were peripheral shades. So, I had to blink and look sideways at Kristin when she plopped down next to me on a smoke break between classes and asked me to prom.
“Prom? Us?” It was not just the “us” part, but I had never given prom serious thought. I was not able to properly imagine it.
She was visibly nervous and brought the bravado on heavy. Backhanding my chest, she said, “Hell yes, us. We would tear that place down, dude. We can storm the thing, and when we get bored just pull a fire alarm or something. Say yes.”
“How much will it cost?” My weekend job at the car wash only covered gas, music purchases, and the exorbitant rates teens usually pay for their drugs and booze— which Kristin had been supplying me with during our lunchtime valium-and-vodka talks off campus. “And I have to buy a tux, too. Don’t I?”
“I already bought the tickets.”
She shrugged. “I think it is going to be fun. I plan to blow the minds of some preppies. Come on. Say yes. And you rent a tux, not buy one. Be sure the cummerbund is red. I’m wearing a red sash. You don’t have to go. I’m gonna go. If you don’t want, it’s no big deal. I want you to, but it’s no big deal. I could sell the tickets.”
I regarded her for the first time as a possible date. She was pretty. Slender and pale with reddish-brown hair and sharp features. She wore skinny black pants and a green flight jacket with her hair spiked up in all the right ways. She was a traditional punk, first and second wave. I was a mix of maudlin Brit synth pop and death rock. I wore red eyeliner to look especially unhealthy, a whip of blue hair across my face, and a general disposition of gloom. Kristin had an older sister who was living large in the LA scene and was a conduit for her tastes. For weeks, she’d been making me mixed tapes and loaned me VHS cassette collections of some damn obscure music videos. She introduced me to bands she enjoyed like Killing Joke and The Buzzcocks, and to music she rightly thought I would like, such as “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie & the Banshees. In a nearby parking lot, we’d had the deep talks all teens think they are having while we ate our food, took our pills, and drank our booze. Looking away from me, waiting for an answer, her jaw tensed.
I held my hand up to calm her. “No-no. Sure. Yeah. It’s gonna be cool. Let’s do it.”
She hugged me—a first—and headed back to campus. If she looked back, I didn’t see it. I stared at my cigarette and tried to understand how I was feeling.
A banshee is a creature you hear before you die. Nasty hag, beautiful woman, singing soothsayer, omen embodied, she flies around the houses of the ill and injured, divining their deaths with a piercing wail. She screeched her hymns through famines and plagues. She wailed with storms, mudslides, floods, and when Mount Vesuvius opened its maw above the ancient city of Pompeii, it was her howl that erupted over the crowds of people just before they were covered in ash.
Nearly two millennia later, that banshee would return as Siouxsie Sioux, releasing “Cities in Dust” to a throng of devotees, making her own legend. An anachronistic diva. The future is the past:
Water was running children were running
You were running out of time
Under the mountain, a golden fountain
Were you praying at the Lares shrine?
The destruction of Pompeii has drawn the imaginative attention from people in the Western world since it was unearthed in 1748. Some are drawn to the site because of its preservation of the past—the way it provides insight into everyday historical experience. Some are drawn to the narratives made from the remains of the human forms, some to how swiftly and completely an entire city was removed from existence—a terrible reminder of mortality. You think you’ve got big plans, huh? Remember Pompeii. But there’s something about the particular moment in which Siouxsie composed the song that harmonized with the youth of America. The single came out in 1986, smack dab in the Age of Reagan—ultra-conservative, middle class, Christian values reigning everywhere, or at least the veneer of them—everything bleached and shining like the laminate kitchen counters in suburban homes.
There’s a mocking tone of the opening verse that places itself in direct combat with domestic complacency: the children running, the fountain fashioned from gold, and the Lares Shrine—a guardian deity of the household often placed near the hearth—all gone in one fell swoop. Also, the “you.” As in “you people.” As in, not me—and maybe even I ran away from your bullshit town a long time ago. You thought that trinket shrine would protect you…
But oh your city lies in dust, my friend
Oh, oh your city lies in dust, my friend
But it gets worse. How, you might wonder, does it get worse than all the inhabitants of a city crushed or suffocated by molten rock and ash? Well, centuries later, the people who found their unmarked graves would be so fascinated by their horrible death that their bodies would be displayed, photographed, and fetishized, in the way capitalist values make nothing sacred:
We found you hiding we found you lying
Choking on the dirt and sand
Your former glories and all the stories
Dragged and washed with eager hands
The night was what it was. When this off-campus event called prom adhered to the school rules on smoking and everything else, I wanted to leave. I was a dud date, I am certain, preoccupied and angry. I can’t remember if she even got a dance out of me. Most likely not. What a treat for Kristin.
“Let’s go. Let’s just take off and drink or something,” I sulked. She was gracious enough to leave with me. I drove us to the elementary school near her house and parked where we drank more vodka and ate more valium. She put on a mixed tape she made for me, straddled my lap and kissed me so deeply that her braces began to draw blood. She whispered confessions of affection as we kissed and dry humped, the shadows from the street dimming her face, her spikey hair. When “Cities in Dust” came on, she climbed off me and sat in the passenger seat. She eased it down and pulled me over on top of her. Siouxsie Sioux sang out over the speakers:
Hot and burning in your nostrils
Pouring down your gaping mouth
Your molten bodies, blanket of cinders
Caught in the throes…
Kristin held my face, kissed my cheek. “I want this. I’m ready.” She laid back, brought balled fists to her chest, and nodded. I realized she was a virgin.
I decided the night was over. I had had an unsettling amount of sex by the time I found myself in that car with Kristin, but I had never been a person’s first, and had a big hang-up about that—maybe a hangover from my Southern Baptist past. I viewed the act of deflowering a person as evil. When the opportunity presented itself and she to me, I literally ran away. I rolled off Kristin and started the car.
“I should get you home.”
“Wait—what? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. I just have to get home.” I was starting to hyperventilate.
We were in front of her home in less than five mute minutes. The lights were on.
“I don’t understand what just happened. What did I do wrong? Tell me. Can we leave before my parents see us? Let’s go back, and you can tell me what I am supposed to do. I’ll do it.”
“This is me being weird. This just is not right. You are fine. I am the one messing up.” This went on for a couple of minutes until her driveway light came on.
“Your parents are waiting. Go.”
She climbed out of my car, bewildered. I was careful to not let the tires spin out as I pulled away.
Goth is a histrionic art. At the center of the arguments that deride the music, the style, is a distaste for the theatrics of it, which I suspect is disguised discomfort with the emotional, the feminine. The dramatic externalizing of pain through fashion and music might strike some as inauthentic—a commodifying of pain in the way capitalism commodifies everything. Pain, as western people understand it, is a thing yoked to shame, and you don’t parade shame around on stage, or sing about it. You let it burn in your pockets, on your tongue. You let it bury you. There’s a distrust of anyone dangling their darkness out in front of them. If she is drawing our attention to pain—the civilized mind imagines—she must not have actually lived it. She must be a liar, or deranged—hysterical.
Hysterical. Histrionic. History. I think of the Salpêtrière asylum of Paris in the late 1800’s—a place for vagabonds, epileptics, women with venereal diseases, old maids, malformed infants, and mad women. Upon arrival, they were whipped, interned once their “punishment certificate” was complete. The head physician of the hysterical wing was Jean-Martin Charcot, now known as the “Father of Neurology.” Charcot was an exhaustive taxonomist of hysteria: drawings, photographs, observation, description, classification. He wanted to discover, claim, name, categorize—not cure. In his observational sessions, his patients were stripped naked and ordered to keep silent while he drew them, supposedly to focus on the symptoms that neurology might explain: motor paralyses, sensory losses, convulsions, and amnesia.
His theory was that hysteria was caused by lesions in the brain, so he waited patiently for his patients to die to crack open their skulls. He never found lesions, which frustrated him. Instead, he found how his philanthropic work with these women—who would interact with such creatures except a saint?—fascinated the people of high society. Hysterical symptoms were so tawdry, consumable: hypersexuality, imaginative to the point of hallucination, self-centered, emotionally demonstrative, given to violent outbursts when their stories of sexual trauma weren’t taken as true. The lurid fascination for these frail and dangerous women reached fever pitch in Charcot’s Tuesday lectures, attended by scientists and aristocracy alike, during which he paraded his patients under hypnosis, triggering them into outbursts, flashbacks or seizures—all for the approval of his audience.
What made these women so strange and wicked that they were kept away from the innocent public? First, they were haunted by their painful pasts, and second, they displayed their pain. In other words, good girls don’t cry—and neither did good boys, for that matter. For decades, men suffering from similar symptoms, usually upon returning from combat, were treated for “male hysteria,” then “shell shock” and now PTSD—a disorder that forms when a person has difficulty recovering from the shock of a traumatic event. By the time was I sent to the psychiatric hospital, the men and women suffering from what would have historically been called hysteria were treated together, in talking circles, with coffee and cigarettes. We could listen to each other’s stories without flinching, recognize that we freaks could form a community.
I’m not saying that it’s genius—the Goth way of making drama of darkness. In fact, most of the bands that have been credited with creating or riding the first wave of that post-punk genre give sour lips to the label “goth.” Siouxsie despises being labeled “goth.” So does Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy and Robert Smith of The Cure, and Peter Murphy of Bau-fucking-haus. They are fine with their fans calling themselves that, but they will also explain how their commercial successes cannot be laid on the shoulders of such a relatively small, niche purchasing group. This upsets the fans. Siouxsie does not care. This delights the fans.
It’s just that Siouxsie showed a different aesthetic, a different perspective. At the black heart of goth style is the subversion of the conventional ideals that trap people in a façade of nice. The theatricality surrounding pain, darkness, and death, is meant as a mirror to the theatricality of The Normal. To make art of confusion, the clothes remix contemporary and historical fashions in an anachronistic display. The make-up is clown-like both in image and aim—to unsettle its audience with exaggerated features, distorted mouths. You can see why this might appeal to those who felt sequestered inside the standardization of 1980’s America: the madwomen, the queer boys, the totally reasonably depressed. Instead of hiding their strange backstage to protect the sensibilities of convention, they could strut out into the spotlight, into a bright applause. That is, we could applaud each other. As pearl-clutching mundanes and normies looked on with their own theatrics of outrage and unself-reflective chagrin, we could fall in love with each other’s pain.
It was before midnight, and I got on the freeway to kill some hours before sunrise. I headed to Hospital Girl’s neighborhood and drank coffee at a beachside doughnut shop, romantically dour until the sun came up. It was a school day, and I planned to catch Hospital Girl on the way out her front door. She would understand me leaving the prom. She would approve of me leaving Kristin without ruining her. She would, perhaps, be cool with my confessions of affection for her. I pulled up in front of her house and, too eager, I walked to the door and gently knocked.
Her mother answered. She looked burned out, exhausted, confused:
“What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Is she here? I just left a prom date to come here. I need to tell her something. That I’m ready?”
“For what? What is happening? Have you heard from her?”
I learned Hospital Girl had run away months ago. Her mother had no idea where she was or if she was alive. I’d been harboring these feelings, this story about us, and she had a completely different story. I wasn’t even in her story. I stood there stupidly a moment, said something like “sorry to bother you, sorry she’s missing” and went back to my car.
When I returned to school, I gave Kristin a wide berth and minimal acknowledgement. Everyone assumed we had sex, and I corrected them, I thought, to save her honor—though deep down I knew I was just covering up my freak out. Of course, I said nothing about how she was game or how I derailed the evening. Instead, I told people that her braces shredded my mouth and that there was no way I was going to have sex with her. I thought this was respectful of her and the best way. Kristin and I never really spoke to one another again. I dropped out of high school not long after.
Three decades later, and still that moment in my car with Kristin rising up every time I hear “Cities in Dust,” I decided to find her on social media sites to see if I might apologize and explain my behavior. I didn’t expect that it would change her life—maybe she didn’t think of me at all—but I still felt like I owed her that much. It didn’t take long for me to find friends of friends, who told me that she was dead.
She went in her sleep in her early twenties. They offered no further details and I didn’t push.
A banshee cannot harm or heal. She can only give warning. Her voice points into a time, into a place, into a moment of illness, injury, disaster. She’s not a reaper, but a seer, not a teacher, but a singer—her song a sonic crash between the living and the dead. In her arrival, she strikes the living into fearful contemplation. In her departure, she leaves contrails of questions.
(For more discussion of “Cities in Dust” by our contestants, dial up episode 31 of their podcast, Lit from the Basement.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is the author of a memoir, The Riots (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and two poetry collections, Lovely Asunder (U. of Arkansas Press, 2011), and Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us (Barrow Street, 2015). She’s an Associate Professor at Willamette University and hosts a literary podcast at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @DanielleDeulen. On Instagram: @dcdeulen. On her author site: danielledeulen.net.
J. Max Stinson is a recovered ne’re-do-well, stay at home dad, and podcast co-host at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @VitaReadings. On Instagram: @litfromthebasement.